"I mean, what more can Connor do?"
Since Connor McDavid established himself as the NHL's premier offensive talent, that's been the common refrain when assessing the successes and, well, mainly failures of the Edmonton Oilers. Overcoming the best defenders and the most meticulously designed shutdown schemes in the greatest league in the world has been one thing, but overcoming the ineptitude of the original front office tasked with building around him is another, completely.
As long as 35-40 minutes were out of his hands each night as he caught his wind from the bench, it seemed that all he could do would eventually be undone on balance.
A firm ceiling hovered over McDavid's head, it seemed, and would remain there to crash into unless the Oilers made serious improvements to the supporting cast around him.
Fortunately, since the switch from Peter Chiarelli to Ken Holland, the Oilers have improved, and fairly substantially. It isn't a perfect roster by any means, and quite a lot of work is still to be done, but the rate in which the other Oilers cough up what McDavid has been able to gain has diminished considerably.
Even if most of the good stuff still revolves around No. 97.
A lot of that has to do with the standout performances of Mike Smith and Darnell Nurse, as well as the positive return on investment from players likes Tyson Barrie and Jesse Puljujarvi. Those four, along with superstar running mate Leon Draisaitl and the tenured Ryan Nugent-Hopkins have contributed to strengthening the insulation around the best player in the world.
But if we're being honest with ourselves, it's McDavid, and the more he's been able to offer in his sixth season, that's led the Oilers' revival and charge toward the small collection of elite teams participating in this summer's Stanley Cup Playoffs.
From an offensive standpoint, he's not only better than ever before, but perhaps better than the average hockey fan has ever seen. McDavid's 105 points in 56 games was 21 points higher than the next-most productive scorer, Draisaitl, and at least 35 points clear of all those who don't directly benefit from his mastery.
McDavid's 1.88 points per game is the 23rd-best single-season scoring rate in the history of the league, and when projected over 82 games, Hockey Reference pencils him down for an era-adjusted 159 points — or the fifth-best total in modern hockey history behind only seasons from arguably the two greatest forwards ever, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux.
Of course, there's something to be said for maintaining the pace that he was on over a full season, which players like Gretzky and Lemieux managed way back when. But in terms of what was and remains in McDavid's control, this was a historically dominant season, one of the best ever, and evidence that McDavid could, in fact, do more.
But to focus solely on the shiny things only tells half the story of the season for McDavid and the Oilers.
Despite averaging 0.92 points per hour more than his previous high, and eclipsing a whopping five points for every 60 minutes logged, the statistical gains from a defensive standpoint are just as stark, or at least as important to the team's success.
Opponents' shots, shot attempts and total goals were way down with McDavid on the ice at five-on-five this season, most notably when compared to his previous two.
A lot of that has to do with the fact that McDavid's brilliance with the puck in a career-best season allowed for fewer opportunities for his all-Canadian counterparts. However, anyone close to the organization would explain that this is far from a two-outcome scenario, and that a larger share of the puck hasn't exclusively driven improved defensive metrics.
In fact, McDavid's commitment to detail without the puck, and more importantly when the opponent has it, seems to have extended beyond his shifts.
"I know everyone's talking about the offensive side of his game and all the points he's put up, but the way he's committed to playing in the defensive zone, checking, playing the right way, being above pucks, it sets the example for our group as a whole, how committed we have to be to be successful," Nurse recently explained in an availability.
Alex Chiasson said before the end of the season: "when you’ve got the best player on your team — your captain — doing that stuff, it’s contagious."
McDavid had some outstanding moments in last season's short-lived experience inside the Edmonton playoff bubble. He scored one of the great goals of the tournament; he even did one better than his 2020-21 season pace of 1.88 points-per-game.
However McDavid wasn't the impressive defensive player he's proved to be this season in that four-game upset at the hands of Jonathan Toews and the Chicago Blackhawks, who banded together to match the Oilers captain's production directly, and eliminated the home side in the play-in round.
It's long been understood that McDavid has to be everything for the Oilers in order for them to have success. To this point this season, he has. And that is worth, at worst, the second Hart Trophy of his career.
But No. 97 didn't have to add defensive detail to his game to perform at an unmatched individual level throughout the course of the regular season; this has been an investment for the moments that don't often come around.
The most complete version of Connor McDavid is knocking on the postseason door.
It has to be an ominous sound for anyone on the other side.
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